Sexual Assault and Anxiety

What is anxiety?

While everyone feels anxious from time to time, some people experience these feelings so often and/or strongly that it can affect their everyday lives. Nearly one in seven people will experience some type of anxiety disorder in any one year – around one in six women and one in ten men. One in four people will experience an anxiety disorder at some stage of their lives (Beyond Blue, 2012).

Often people confuse anxiety with stress. Stress is a normal reaction to a situation where a person feels under pressure. For example, it is common for people to feel stressed or uptight when meeting work deadlines, sitting exams or speaking in front of a group of people. However, for some people these feelings are ongoing, happen for no apparent reason, or continue after the stressful event has passed.

There are many types of anxiety disorders, and you might find you have symptoms of more than one. Common anxiety disorders are: phobias, panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, and generalised anxiety disorder. It is important to speak to your GP about your symptoms to find out the best way to support you in overcoming anxiety.


What are the signs and symptoms of anxiety?

The symptoms of anxiety disorders may sometimes be ignored, as they often develop gradually over time. Given that we all experience some anxiety; it can sometimes be hard to know how much is too much.

Symptoms may include:

–          Muscle tension

–          Rapid heartbeat

–          Light-headedness

–          Avoidance

–          Nervousness

–          Restless sleep

–          Loss of appetite

–          Worrying about something a lot

–          Difficulty concentrating

–          Nausea

–          Shortness of breath

–          Hot or cold flushes

Some people who have symptoms of anxiety can also experience symptoms of other disorders too, so it is important that if you have any of the above symptoms to speak with a doctor for a diagnosis and to rule out any other medical problems.

If the symptoms of anxiety are left untreated, they can start to take over the person’s life. Not only can it affect the person with the disorder, but it can also start to affect relationships with family and friends. For example, untreated anxiety can lead to:

–          Marriage/relationship problems

–          Family problems

–          Financial problems

–          Difficulty finding and holding down a job

–          Drug and alcohol abuse

–          A person losing their temper too easily

–          Suicide

What causes anxiety?

A number of factors contribute to a person having anxiety, including the experience of a traumatic event such as sexual assault. Other factors include changing jobs, death or loss of a loved one, relationship problems, hormonal changes, a family history of mental health issues and personality traits.

You don’t need to experience all of the above factors to have anxiety, just one can be enough.

What support is available for people who are experiencing anxiety?

There are many services and health professionals available for you to get support from, including counsellors here at Laurel House. There are also a number of medical and alternative treatments/strategies available to use to overcome your anxiety.

Some options available are counselling and therapy, medication such as anti-depressants or anti-anxiety tablets, exercise and natural therapies, or support groups. You may choose a combination of medication, counselling or exercise as your method of overcoming anxiety, or you may choose to just use one of the options. For each person experiencing anxiety, the causes and treatments will be different. It is important that you have a talk with your counsellor or GP about what the best treatments might be for you.

Relaxation exercises

When you or someone you know is experiencing anxiety, it may be helpful to try some relaxation exercises to reduce your levels of anxiety. Stress and anxiety can affect your heart rate and breathing patters, and the following activities focus on your breathing during an anxiety attack:

Slow breathing exercise

  1. Time the number of breaths you take in one minute. Breathing, then out is counted as one breath.
  2. Breathe in, hold your breath and count to five. Then breathe out and say the word ‘relax’ to yourself in a calm, soothing manner.
  3. Start breathing in through your nose and out slowly through your mouth, in a six-second cycle. Breathe in for three seconds and out for three seconds. This will produce a breathing rate of 10 breaths per minute. In the beginning, it can be helpful to time your breathing using the second hand of a watch or clock.
  4. Count to yourself.
  5. Continue breathing in a six-second cycle for at least five minutes, or until the symptoms of over breathing have settled.

After practicing this exercise, time the number of breaths you take in one minute. Practice the slow breathing exercise each day before breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime. Use the technique whenever you feel anxious. Gradually, you’ll be familiar enough with the exercise to stop timing yourself.

Muscle relaxation exercise

This exercise helps to reduce physical and mental tension. Practise this exercise regularly and at the first signs of muscle tension.

  1. Sit in a comfortable chair in a quiet room
  2. Put your feet flat on the floor and rest your hands in your lap
  3. Close your eyes
  4. Do the slow breathing exercise for three minutes
  5. After three minutes of slow breathing, start the muscle relaxation exercise below
  6. Tense each of your muscle groups for ten seconds, then relax for ten seconds, in the following order:

–          Hands: Clench your hands into fists, and then relax

–          Lower arms: bend your hands up at the wrists, then relax

–          Upper arms: bend your arms up at the elbow, then relax

–          Shoulders: Lift your shoulders up, and then relax

–          Neck: Stretch your neck gently to the left, then forward, then to the right, then backwards in a slow rolling motion, then relax

–          Forehead and scalp: Raise your eyebrows, and then relax

–          Eyes: Close your eyes tightly, and then relax

–          Jaw: Clench your teeth, and then relax

–          Chest: Breathe in deeply, then breathe out and relax

–          Stomach: Pull your tummy in, then relax

–          Upper back: Pull your shoulders forward, then relax

–          Lower back: While sitting, roll your back into a smooth arc, and then relax

–          Buttocks: Tighten your buttocks, and then relax

–          Thighs: Push your feet firmly into the floor, and then relax

–          Calves: Lift your toes off the ground, then relax

–          Feet: Gently curl your toes down, and then relax

  1. Continue slow breathing for five more minutes, enjoying the feeling of relaxation
  2. As you become better at relaxation, it can be more interesting to combine these exercises with memories of relaxing situations e.g. lying on a beach or doing a favourite activity.

A full session of relaxation takes about 15-20 minutes. Once you are good at relaxing your muscles, start relaxing tense parts of your body during the day while you are going about your daily activities.

For further information and support, please contact Laurel House (North) on 6334 2740, Laurel House North-West on 6431 9711, or email